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Mum Shirl (Mrs Shirley Smith)
, 1988

by Juno Gemes

gelatin silver photograph (sheet: 60.8 cm x 51.0 cm, image: 44.0 cm x 31.8 cm)

Shirley 'Mum Shirl' Smith AO OBE (1921–1998), humanitarian, was a Wiradjuri woman. She was born near Cowra, NSW and brought up by her grandfather, who taught her to 'first love yourself, then spread it around'. Severely epileptic, she never went to school, or learned to read or write, although by the end of her life she spoke many Aboriginal languages. In the mid-1930s her family moved to Sydney, and one of her brothers was jailed. She began to visit him in prison, and when he came out she continued to visit others, encouraging them, finding their families and helping them to regain health. Soon she began acting as support for Aboriginal people in court, and assumed responsibility for countless children who were often placed in her care by the courts. Living in Redfern, where she cared for hundreds of alcoholics and vagrants, she was one of the founders of the Aboriginal Medical Service and the Aboriginal Legal Service in the early 1970s, and over time she was involved in the establishment of the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs, the Aboriginal Children's Service, the Aboriginal Housing Company and the continuing struggle for land rights. Sir William Deane said 'We Australians are prone to use the words "great" and "hero" too lightly and too readily. There are, however, a few people – a mere handful – for whom they really are the only appropriate words. Mum Shirl was one of them.'

Collection: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra
Gift of the artist 2004
Donated through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program
Accession number: 2004.153